Preview: 20 Feb 2020

One by-election on 20th February 2020:

Coulby Newham

Middlesbrough council; caused by the resignation of former Conservative councillor David Smith.

First World Problems, I know. That was me complaining on Facebook, on the morning of Good Friday 2017, about a night of disturbed sleep. The previous day there had been a by-election in the Coulby Newham ward of Middlesbrough, and it had been an impressive Conservative gain. The result came through shortly after midnight.

By-elections on Maundy Thursday used to be banned. The following day, Good Friday, is a public holiday and as such creates complications for running elections on Maundy Thursday; notably in recruiting and paying count staff. Bank holidays and public holidays in general cause problems for running elections, as was demonstrated by the two unexpected national elections that took place last year. The count for the 2019 European elections had to take place over a bank holiday weekend, and there was some confusion over the timetable for the recent general election because of the fact that St Andrew’s Day, a week and a half before polling, is a bank holiday in Scotland. The Association of Electoral Administrators, the professional body for election staff, is not impressed. At their annual conference earlier this month a report by them on the administration of the December general election made five recommendations to government, one of which was to sort out the inconsistencies in the election timetables as regards bank holidays.

As far as your columnist is aware, the government are yet to reply to these concerns. They are also yet to reply to concerns previously raised by the AEA over the decision to move next year’s early May bank holiday to 8th May for a VE Day 75th anniversary celebration. This has been done once before, for the 50th anniversary in 1995; but 8th May 1995 was a Monday whereas 8th May 2020 will be a Friday. Worse, it is the Friday immediately following the local elections on Thursday 7th May, in which the whole of England and Wales will go the polls thanks to the Police and Crime Commissioner elections taking place (except in Greater London and Greater Manchester, where there are mayoral elections instead). These are complicated counts which require co-ordination between lots of different councils. The Greater London mayoral and assembly election count has been planned for years on the basis that the votes will be counted on Friday 8th May 2020; the capital’s big exhibition centres had already been booked for the occasion, and when the bank holiday announcement came it was too late to change the arrangements. Other councils are considering delaying their vote counts until Saturday. The reason for the bank holiday change may be a worthy one, but the consequences of it render the whole thing a questionable idea.

Just one of many questionable ideas that came out of the Theresa May administration, of which the most questionable of all has to be decision to go to the country in June 2017. At the time, however, it must have seemed like an easy decision to make. On Maundy Thursday 2017, as stated, there had been a by-election in the Coulby Newham ward of Middlesbrough, and it had been an impressive Conservative gain. Mrs May went hiking over the Easter weekend, no doubt mulling this result and other factors over in her mind, and when the country went back to work on Tuesday May announced that she would seek an election.

The Tory gain in Coulby Newham was certainly staggering enough. As I recounted in Andrew’s Previews 2017, pages 99 and 100, this is a council estate on the southern edge of Middlesbrough which was developed from the 1970s onwards to the south of the A174 Parkway, Middlesbrough’s southern bypass. The ward’s main shopping centre, opened in 1986, is named after the Parkway and has been augmented in recent years by a large branch of Tesco; while St Mary’s Cathedral, see of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Middlesbrough, was consecrated in 1998. Many housing estates have a church; but only Coulby Newham has a cathedral.

The growth of Coulby Newham (as with some other estates in the Teesside area, particularly Ingleby Barwick) hadn’t been anticipated by the boundary-drawers of the 1970s. They drew a large Newham ward to cover the area between the villages of Stainton and Nunthorpe, gave the ward three councillors, and then filled the area with houses. By 2001 Newham ward had nearly 13,000 electors which would have entitled it to seven Middlesbrough councillors. The Boundary Commission split Newham ward up in 2003, and the present Coulby Newham ward covers half of the territory of the old ward. (Most of the rest ended up in Marton West ward.)

Appropriately, given the presence of a cathedral, the census statistics for Coulby Newham ward showed high levels of Christianity (72% of the population), while social renting was also high. These figures are for the 2003-2015 edition of Coulby Newham ward, but further boundary changes in 2015 were minor.

In local elections Coulby Newham developed into a fight between Labour and a slate of independent candidates, who gained a seat in the ward from Labour in 2011. In the 2015 election Labour restored their monopoly by polling 38% to 26% for the Tories and 23% for the independent slate. On the same day they gained the Middlesbrough mayoralty from retiring independent mayor Ray “Robocop” Mallon, and defended the parliamentary seat of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Labour improved their position further in a by-election in May last year, polling 46% to 30% for the independents and 22% for the Conservatives.

In early 2017 Labour councillor Geoff Cole, the chairman of the council’s planning committee, resigned forcing a second by-election. In hindsight, we can see this by-election as the point at which the wheels started to fall off the Labour juggernaut in the Teesside area. The Conservatives selected as their candidate Jacob Young: in a case of nominative determinism Young was just 24 years old and working as a technician in the petrochemicals industry. Despite his age he already had a general election campaign to his credit, having fought Redcar in 2015; he finished fourth with 16% of the vote. The Tories hadn’t been that far off winning a seat in Coulby Newham in 2015, and they were riding high in the national polling. Young pulled off a victory which seemed to confirm what the opinion polls were saying, polling 38% to 35% for Labour and 24% for an independent candidate. He was the first Conservative to be elected for Coulby Newham ward. As stated, the following Tuesday a general election campaign began.

The national polls seemed to be confirmed three weeks later, when Coulby Newham voted in the inaugural Tees Valley mayoral election. On paper this post seemed to be Labour’s to lose: at the time the party ran all of the councils covering the Tees Valley mayoral area (the former county of Cleveland, plus Darlington) and held all of the parliamentary seats except for Stockton South, which was in Conservative hands. For this election Labour had selected Sue Jeffrey, the leader of Redcar and Cleveland council; while the Tory candidate was Ben Houchen, the party’s group leader on Stockton-on-Tees council. On the first count Houchen and Jeffrey both had 39% of the vote, the Lib Dems’ Chris Foote-Wood (a former district councillor in County Durham and brother of the comedienne Victoria Wood) finishing third on 12% for the Lib Dems. Transfers from the Lib Dems and UKIP broke in favour of Houchen, who beat Jeffrey in the runoff by 51.1% to 48.9%. Houchen had polled particularly well in his home borough of Stockton, whose council covers middle-class Yorkshire towns like Thornaby and Yarm, and he also carried Darlington.

Five weeks after that we had the snap general election of 2017, which was the last recent piece of good news for Teesside Labour: the party unexpectedly gained Stockton South but just as unexpectedly lost Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, the constituency covering Coulby Newham, to the Conservatives. Councillor Jacob Young was selected as the Conservative candidate for the Middlesbrough constituency, taking second place from UKIP although still finishing a long way behind Labour MP Andy McDonald.

The 2019 local elections were disastrous for Labour in the Tees Valley mayoral area. The party now controls only one of the constituent districts, Stockton-on-Tees, and that as a minority. The Conservatives are in minority control of Darlington, Redcar and Cleveland council has a ruling coalition of independents and Lib Dems, while Hartlepool has a very fragmented anti-Labour coalition which runs the political gamut from the Conservatives to the Scargillites. (In the latest round of the ever-changing game of musical chairs in the Pool, the councillors who joined the Brexit Party last year have mostly now left the Brexit Party and reverted to their previous allegiances.) Arguably the worst Labour performance of the lot came in the Middlesbrough mayoral election, which was a resounding win for independent candidate Andy Preston who had only narrowly lost in 2015. Independent candidates won half of the 46 Middlesbrough council seats, with Labour falling from 33 seats to just 20, and the Conservatives winning the other three. The independents have split into two groups on the council: the larger Middlesbrough Independent Councillors Association, many of whose members were on Preston’s side in the mayoral election; and the smaller Middlesbrough Independent Group.

Jacob Young was not one of them. Since winning the 2017 Coulby Newham by-election he had moved out of Middlesbrough to sunny Saltburn by the Sea, and he stood down from Middlesbrough council to seek election to Redcar and Cleveland council. He lost in Saltburn ward, but only narrowly, and went back to his job at the petrochemicals plant. Not for long though: in the December general election Young was selected to fight the volatile Redcar constituency for the second time, and he defeated the Labour MP Anna Turley on a 15% swing to become the Conservative MP for Redcar. Let that sink in for a moment: a Conservative MP for Redcar.

That gain also means that the Conservatives now have a majority of the parliamentary seats in the Tees Valley mayoral area. The party also recovered Stockton South and gained Darlington and Tony Blair’s old Sedgefield seat, which takes in the rural parts of Darlington borough. The Conservative majority in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, the seat which includes Coulby Newham, is now 24 percentage points. The next Tees Valley mayoral election is in May, and on this evidence it looks like Houchen’s to lose.

Young’s retirement from Middlesbrough council last year left a hole in the Conservative organisation in Coulby Newham, and the party only fielded one candidate for the ward in May 2019 against a full Labour slate. With four candidates chasing three seats Labour were guaranteed two councillors, but new Tory candidate David Smith held his party’s seat comfortably. Shares of the vote were 51% for Labour and 49% for Smith.

The Middlesbrough Conservatives must now be regretting having nominated David Smith. He had made his mark quickly by campaigning for Mayor Preston to trial gender-neutral toilets in council buildings, and also came to the attention of the local press for derogatory comments about people on benefits he had made to a Middlesbrough FC fan website. Then in July, two months after Smith’s election, he was charged with a series of historic child sex offences, and he is awaiting trial on seven counts. Smith hadn’t attended a council meeting since, and his resignation came shortly before he would have been disqualified under the six-month nun-attendance rule.

Where a by-election arises in circumstances like this, this column’s experience is that no majority is safe. The Tories may be riding high in Teesside at the moment but they will be doing well if they hold this seat. Their defending candidate is 21-year-old Luke Mason, a local resident who suffered appalling injuries in 2017 when a banned drink-driver crashed into him outside a Middlesbrough nightclub; despite that Mason did well enough in his A-levels last year to get into York University to study PPE. The Labour candidate is Alex Law; she is a 27-year-old mother-of-one and a school governor. There is more choice for the electors this time round with five candidates. The Lib Dems have nominated engineer Tom Carney, and there are two independent candidates: activist Ellie Lowther intends to remain non-aligned if elected, while photographer and former steelworker Ian Morrish has been endorsed by the Middlesbrough Independent Councillors Association.

Parliamentary constituency: Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland
ONS Travel to Work Area: Middlesbrough and Stockton
Postcode districts: TS7, TS8, TS9

Tom Carney (LD)
Alex Law (Lab)
Ellie Lowther (Ind)
Luke Mason (C)
Ian Morrish (Ind)

May 2019 result Lab 857/696/515 C 827
April 2017 by-election C 501 Lab 468 Ind 318 Grn 32
May 2016 by-election Lab 732 Ind 475 C 352 LD 48
May 2015 result Lab 1464/1291/1079 C 996 Ind 893/762/758 LD 524

Andrew Teale